NFL – Dinosaur or Y2K?

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1920 – The country was rebounding from a World War and the post-war economic boon was in full swing. It was the start of the roaring twenties. The 40 hour work week would be introduced and people found they had more leisure time and the money to enjoy it. College football was huge generating more revenue and superstars than even baseball as there were far more collegiate football teams than professional baseball teams. Entrepreneurs across the Midwest and Eastern seaboard were working very hard to get their share of the newly found disposable incomes. Some of these guys were basically snake oil salesmen and con artists. But a few were visionaries who saw long term popularity and with it, long term financial success.

So, on August 20, 1920 under the name the “American Professional Football Conference” (APFC) the NFL was founded. During that August organizational meeting, four independent teams – all from the Ohio League or New York Pro Football League – formed the nucleus of this fledgling league. One month later the name would be changed to the “American Professional Football Association” (APFA) and nine more teams were added. (It wouldn’t be called the “National Football League” until two years later in 1922.) One more team, the Detroit Heralds, didn’t officially join the association, however they are shown in the league standings for 1920. The 1920 league membership that came out of these meetings was as follows;

Team Owner Team Owner
Chicago Tigers Guil Falcon Akron Pros Art Ranney
Hammond Pros « Paul Parduhn Canton Bulldogs Ralph Hay
Muncie Flyers « Earl Ball Cleveland Tigers Jimmy O’Donnell
Rochester Jeffersons Leo Lyons Dayton Triangles Carl Storck
Rock Island Independents Walter Flanigan Decatur Staleys A.E. Staley
Buffalo All-Americans Frank McNeil Racine Cardinals Chris O’Brien
Columbus Panhandles Joseph Carr «Traveling Team

These teams already existed in some form and were initially started as “Company Teams” or “Athletic Clubs“. Companies at that time would hire (or often recruit) workers that would punch a clock for the company during the week and then go play on the company sponsored team on the weekend. For example, the Columbus Panhandles were formed in 1901 by workers of the Panhandle shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Decatur Staleys were sponsored by the Staley Manufacturing Company (makers of cornstarch) and the Dayton Triangles’ players came out of the shops that formed what’s known today as Delco.

While doing research for an article, one of the types of decisions I look for that impact future events was made by “Dutch” Sternaman. A.E. Staley, owner of the Decatur Staleys, approached Sternaman to come to work for him and coach his company team. However, Sternaman chose instead to return to the University of Illinois to complete his degree and Staley put a different Head Coach in charge. His name . . . was George Halas. Eventually, after Sternaman completed his degree, he did return to assist Halas in forming the new team and would end up owning a part of the franchise for a period of time along side of Halas.

The primary goals of the APFA outlined in the minutes of the early organizational meetings, were to curb rising player salaries, eliminate players from jumping from one team to another by chasing the highest offer, to stop using collegiate players still enrolled in school and to provide some stability in scheduling which was sorely needed. One could argue that they fell far short of their goals during the first year and beyond.

A part of the APFA Charter was that teams were responsible for setting their own schedules. A team’s schedule was often made on the fly as the season progressed. We often hear the term today of “putting fannies in the seats”. In the 1920’s, that was paramount. There was no television revenue and games were rarely broadcast on radio. Literally, the sole source of revenue was gate receipts and concessions. If a team had an open date, they would get in touch with one of the many “traveling teams” and try to arrange a game to generate revenue. This practice was identical to that used at that time by baseball teams that brought in these “Barnstormers”.

As a result, not every APFA game played was against another APFA team. The Muncie Flyers played five games in 1920 but only one against another APFA team and that was a 45-0 loss to the Rock Island Independents. The Flyers tried to schedule other APFA games but their opponents kept cancelling to play better teams that would bring in larger gate receipts. The Flyers then went 0-2 in the APFA the next year and folded after the 1921 season.

And the Flyers weren’t alone. One team, the Chicago Tigers, folded after only the first year. Of the fourteen teams that started the 1920 APFA season, only five made it past 1926. The other nine teams joined the ever growing list of NFL dinosaurs. Through the years, 46 separate teams (including nine of the original fourteen) played under the NFL banner and became extinct. In order to survive, just to be good wasn’t good enough. Teams had to be opportunistic and seize every financial edge they could.

When the Chicago Tigers folded after the 1920 season, A.E. Staley saw one such opportunity. The Tigers demise left the huge Chicago market with only one team – the Racine Cardinals. Staley seized the opportunity and moved his team from Decatur Illinois to Chicago and renamed them the Chicago Staleys for the 1921 season. The following year, Head Coach/Player George Halas changed the team name again because he wanted his team’s nickname to coincide with that of the team whose field they shared – the Chicago Cubs and they became the Chicago Bears.

An interesting side note: The Racine Cardinals were not from Racine, Wisconsin. Rather they took the name from Racine Avenue in Chicago, the street on which Normal Park was located. The Racine Cardinals began life in 1898 as the Morgan Athletic Club. Owner Chris O’Brien moved the team to Chicago’s Normal Field and renamed them the Racine Normals. In 1901, O’Brien purchased used uniforms from the University of Chicago for his team. The once maroon uniforms had faded to the point where O’Brien claimed they weren’t maroon, they were “Cardinal Red” and renamed his team the Racine Cardinals. Then, in 1922, a team actually from Racine Wisconsin joined the NFL (the Racine Legion) and O’Brien begrudgingly changed his team name again to the Chicago Cardinals.

Of the fourteen founding teams, only two of them, the Bears and the Cardinals, still exist in the NFL today. But a case could loosely be made for a third and, if not for one of those pesky decisions, a fourth.

A local Cleveland sports promoter named Jimmy O’Donnell obtained a franchise in the newly formed APFA. He named his new professional football team the Cleveland Tigers and they began play as the Tigers in 1920. In 1921, he changed the name to the Cleveland Indians partially due to the signing of three Native American players away from the Canton Bulldogs. Both the Tigers and the Indians teams struggled to stay afloat during those first two years. O’Donnell received league permission to suspend operations for 1922 but when he couldn’t come up with the $1,000 annual guarantee now required by the NFL, his franchise was cancelled.

Samuel Deutsch purchased the cancelled Indians franchise from the NFL and began operations in 1923. In 1924, Deutsch also purchased the Canton Bulldogs who had been continuously operating as an NFL team since its inception. He then moved the Canton Bulldogs to Cleveland and merged them with his Cleveland Indians team. They entered play in the 1924 NFL season as the Cleveland Bulldogs and actually won the NFL title that year. In 1925, he sold the contracts of the Canton players he brought to Cleveland back to the city of Canton where they resumed play in the NFL as the Canton Bulldogs. His 1925 Cleveland Bulldogs team finished the year at 5-8-1 as a result. He then obtained permission from the NFL to sit out the 1926 season and returned to play in 1927. After the 1927 season, he moved the Cleveland Bulldogs franchise to Detroit and they played in 1928 as the Detroit Wolverines.

Now here is the loose case argument part . . . some accounts show that the Cleveland Bulldogs folded after the 1927 season and the Detroit Wolverines were added to the NFL as an expansion team. Other accounts show that they didn’t fold but, rather, Deutsch simply sold and/or moved the Bulldogs to Detroit. Depending on which account is accurate matters due to the next event in this chain. After the 1927 season, the NFL began to purge some of the weaker teams. As a result, the NFL mandated that the Detroit Wolverines merge with the New York Giants who began play in the NFL in 1925. If, in fact, the Cleveland Bulldogs did indeed fold after the 1927 season, then they simply get added to the list of dinosaurs. However, if they actually did relocate instead of folding and were subsequently mandated by the NFL to merge with the New York Giants, then they would become the third founding team in the NFL to still be in existence today as part of the New York Giants.

The next chain of events involving one of the founding teams spans 34 years. The Dayton Triangles started out in the APFA relatively competitive going 8-6-3 in their first two years. However, in 1922, the other teams were signing top college players while the Triangles stuck with mostly local players and their long but steady decline began. From 1923 to 1929 they went only 5-42-4, eventually became an in-house traveling team and were a league doormat going winless in their final 2 seasons in Dayton. Mercifully, in July of 1930, Bill Dwyer bought the Triangle franchise and moved it to Brooklyn, New York where they played as the Brooklyn Dodgers for the next 14 years and as the Brooklyn Tigers for the 15th and what turned out be their final year in 1944.

In 1945, the (now) Brooklyn Tigers’ owner, Dan Topping, announced that he was moving his franchise to the upstart “All American Football Conference” (AAFC). The NFL revoked his franchise and transferred all of his players and assets to the Boston Yanks who had begun league play one year earlier in 1944. Five years later, in 1949, the Boston Yanks moved to New York city and became the New York Bulldogs. One year later they changed their name again and played for two more years as the New York Yanks.

In 1951 the Yanks owner, Ted Collins, sold the franchise back to the NFL which, in turn, awarded it to a new ownership group who moved the franchise to Dallas, Texas. In 1952, they took the field as the Dallas Texans but were so bad and attendance so low, the owners sold the franchise back to the NFL after only seven weeks into the season. The NFL moved the operation of the franchise to Hershey, Pennsylvania and turned the Texans into the last traveling team in the NFL. They would finish the season with a 1-11-0 record.

Meanwhile, the NFL and the AAFC had merged in 1950 and three AAFC teams joined the NFL. One of those three teams was the Baltimore Colts. They finished the 1950 season with a dismal 1-11-0 record and the NFL dissolved the team after only the one year. However, a group of Baltimore businessmen headed by Carroll Rosenbloom convinced the NFL that a franchise would succeed in Baltimore and, in January of 1953, they purchased the Dallas Texans franchise from the NFL. Rosenbloom opted to retain the Texans’ colors of Blue and White (the 1950 Colts colors were Green and Silver)but insisted that all other ties to the Texans franchise be severed. And that decision resulted in the longest living dinosaur in NFL history. Had Carroll Rosenbloom not decided to sever the franchise ties to the Texans, the lineage of the Dayton Triangles would extend all the way to the (now) Indianapolis Colts.

In 1921, all but one team (the Chicago Tigers) returned for league play and eight more teams joined the league. Of these eight teams, four would fold after only one year, one more after two years and two others wouldn’t make it past 1926. (One of the last two teams, the Minneapolis Marines, did return for a two year stint in 1929 as the Minneapolis Red Jackets.) That eighth team, however, was a gem.

In 1918, a star high school athlete made Knute Rockne’s varsity football team at Notre Dame as a Freshman but was forced to leave college and return home due to a severe case of tonsillitis. Still having the urge to play football, he organized a local team from co-workers and others in the area and solicited a sponsorship from his employer to fund the team. The player was Curly Lambeau and his employer was the Indian Packing Company. Out of respect for his employer, he felt obligated to name the team the Indians but the local press simply wrote about the “Packers” and by the end of their first season, the name stuck and ever since then they have been known as the Green Bay Packers.

Until 1923, the Packers played their home games Hagemeister Park, a vacant lot next to a high school. There were no bleachers and fans could simply walk up and watch a game for free. Before the game and at halftime, the players would gather in an end zone and discuss strategy. Quite often, fans would wander over and join in the discussion. To pay for the ongoing player’s salaries, a hat would be passed in the crowd for donations. In order to attract players from outside the local community, Lambeau knew he needed more than loose change from a hat. Some local businessmen got together and formed the “Green Bay Football Corporation“, a non-profit entity intended to provide financial backing for the team. Initial shares sold for $5.00 and paid no dividends. To this day, the Green Bay Packers remain as the only NFL team to be publically owned. (The NFL does not allow corporate membership. Instead, it requires clubs to be wholly owned either by a single owner, or small group of owners, and requires that at least one owner owns a 1/3 stake in the team. The Packers are granted an exemption to this rule, as they have been a publicly owned corporation since before the rule was in place.)

For the rest of the 1920’s, the only other team still in existence today to join the NFL was the aforementioned New York Giants. From its inception in 1920 through 1925, the NFL had only one team in the country’s largest market – New York City (the New York Brickley Giants in 1921) – and it folded after only one season. Thus, the NFL dispatched President Joseph Carr to New York to attempt to persuade the Brickley Giants prior owner, Billy Gibson, to return to the league. Gibson declined but referred Carr to a New York bookmaker (a legal profession at the time) named Tim Mara.

Mara invested $500 in this new professional football league and then realized his purchase did not include a home field, players, coaches or equipment. He then spent $25,000 of his own money to keep the team afloat during that first season in 1925. He was saved by a visit from the Chicago Bears and Red Grange for the eleventh game of the season. The game attracted over 73,000 fans – a pro football record – and provided a much needed influx of cash to the point where it, no doubt, altered and secured the future of the franchise. In 1927, the Giants would win the NFL Championship with an 11-1-1 record. Ten of those eleven wins were shutouts and the Giants did not allow a single first half point to be scored against them all season.

So there you have it. The first ten years of the NFL. During the 1920’s, forty-two different teams took the field. Thirty-eight ended up as dinosaurs while only four survived to see the new millennium.

In my next installment . . . the Great Depression and World War II.

Next articleNFL – Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
I am a transplanted Connecticut Yankee. My family moved to Northern Ohio in the very early 1950's and plopped me right smack dab in the middle of the Otto Graham, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley era Cleveland Browns and I have been a fan ever since. I'm also an avid history buff so the combination of the NFL and history seems to be a perfect match for me. I hope that I will be successful in sharing some of my research on the history of the NFL and hope you learn something new while reading my articles.
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